Make Like an Ape Man
I watched the 1933 King Kong recently, catching up with it since I hadn’t seen it in years and I knew Jackson was saying his remake was an homage. And sure, the acting is histrionic and the dialogue is hokey, but the film still has an undeniable power to command the imagination. And while I was being simultaneously amused and enthralled by the film, I thought: Wow, someone needs to make a Shadow of the Vampire for Kong, needs to — as Shadow did for the classic Nosferatu — reexamine the film’s power but filter it through a cynical and knowing modern perspective, give it just enough of a tweak to make it something fresh and new and relevant and snarky and movielicious while also honoring the potency and dynamism of the original. You know, pull the movie’s pigtails as a way of showing how much you like it.
And damn if that isn’t exactly what Peter Jackson has done. I expected him to reinvigorate the tale, of course — I wasn’t anticipating anything like Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho — but Jackson has gone way beyond that. Not only is his Kong as visceral and as elemental an experience as his 70-year-old inspiration was and still is, but at the same time it is also a powerful meditation on the significance of fantasy and the genuine import of “mere” entertainment. This new Kong isn’t “just” a deep-down-thrilling new pinnacle of popcorn entertainment — it is a house-of-mirrors contemplation of itself, its own explanation for why it could well become the biggest movie ever… and why it deserves to.
Words like meditation and contemplation may seem inappropriate, at first glance, because the standard hack-movie-critic phrases like “roller-coaster ride” followed by multiple exclamation points don’t even come close to doing justice to the heart-revving adrenaline rush Jackson has crafted. Two words: dino stampede. I probably should have put my head down between my knees and taken a series of long, deep breaths to recover from that early Skull Island setpiece, except it would have meant taking my eyes from the screen, and there was no way in hell I could have done that. And then it just keeps getting more almost unbearably exciting — I can’t remember the last time I actually gasped or moaned out loud at something I was seeing on a movie screen, or actually slapped my hands to my face half in awe at what I was seeing and half resisting the urge to cover my eyes so I wouldn’t have to see any more… but Kong made me feel like a little kid again, astonished at the transporting power of The Movies. And that dino stampede is only the beginning — there’s lots more amazing monsters that you Just Can’t Believe you’re seeing, and Kong himself, who’s a miracle of CGI, but also the gritty-lovely cinematic replica of desperate New York City in the depths of the Great Depression that’s so authentically New York that it took this New Yorker’s breath away. It gets harder all the time for filmmakers to invent stuff we’ve never seen before — or that’s so real that it feels like we haven’t seen it before — but that’s what Jackson has done in almost every frame of Kong.
A tremendous share of Kong’s energy, then, comes from Jackson’s presentation of an experience that evokes those same primal reactions movies elicited from us as kids discovering the power of movies for the first time — if Jackson set out to make a film that would blow minds, child and adult alike, like the ’33 Kong did for him as an eight-year-old, then he has succeeded enormously. Kong made me forget I was sitting in a movie theater watching a projected image, and put me right in the middle of the adventure like movies did for me when I was little. But woven into all of that, and inherent in the alterations to the story that Jackson and his coscreenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (Lord of the Rings vets) injected, are running commentary and insightful observations on the urgency and even necessity of storytelling, of entertainment as vital communication. The rather disturbing question of what, precisely, Kong wants with his little human brides is rather nattily dismissed here: he wants company — he’s lonely. Actor Andy Serkis (13 Going on 30, 24 Hour Party People) provided the motion-capture for the CGI animating Kong, as he did for LOTR’s Gollum, and as a result, this ape is decidedly, well, not human, of course, but certainly higher-primate, not a monster nor a lowly animal, but a social being in need of companionship. (His cave is littered with the giant skeletons of long-dead giant apes, emphasizing his aloneness — he’s the last of his kind.)
And he finds that in Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts: Stay, The Ring Two), who’s not the shrieking flower Fay Wray was (though Watts gets off a few good screams of her own, naturally). The sexual subtext of the earlier Kongs is all but dismissed as a motivation for the big ape here — he falls in love with Ann not for her beauty, though she is of course lovely, but because she entertains him. Literally. She juggles rocks and does pratfalls in his mountain aerie — she was a vaudeville star back in NYC — and generally amuses him. Kong laughs here… and that goes a long way not only to humanizing him — or primatizing him — but toward making him a stand-in for the audience: He demands to be entertained, and won’t stand for less than the best. Back in New York, a freak in Carl Denham’s sideshow, he heaves a giant sigh at the pantomime of the “native sacrifice” Denham stages before him: a little freak show of bigotry and racism in itself, it is a reduction of weird, eerie, real reality (Jackson’s natives are like Reavers lost in the ruins of Mordor) to mere spectacle masquerading as entertainment. Ann he loves because she’s warm and vulnerable as an entertainer — in her case, literally physically vulnerable, but still, she creates a genuine connection with him. Denham’s excuse for “entertainment” is hackwork, and he don’t like it much at all.
This is where Kong is truly brilliant, beyond the amazing dinosaur battles and disgusting giant bugs and the monkey on the Empire State Building and all: It’s about the primal force that is entertainment, how it speaks to us and moves us and connects us when it’s real. Look, the villain is a hack — Jack Black (Shark Tale, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy) is exactly the right kind of smarmy here — and the hero is a writer: Adrien Brody (The Jacket, The Village) is Jack Driscoll, a serious playwright who has to be shanghaied into Denham’s island adventure in B filmmaking. Jackson pokes fun at the absurdity of the sexism and melodrama of the ’33 film by turning that film into Denham’s movie: An actual scene from the ’33 film is replayed here as a fiction of Denham’s, and we witness him shooting what will “become” part of the ’33 film. The first hour or so of Jackson’s Kong is, in many ways, a witty “making-of” the ’33 film — but recasting the melodrama within his own framework isn’t meant to denigrate it, but is instead a way to acknowledge its past power while also recognizing that some ideas about what constitutes gripping drama have changed for audiences today. (The native pantomime Denham stages in New York is, naturally, picked up whole cloth from the ’33 film.) What was once “real” for audiences is no longer “real” for us today — and Jackson reminds us about all the fakeness of the past before immersing us in a new kind of cinematic reality.